Q&A with Nat St. Laurent: How the Chris Gray trade became reality

By Jerome Taylor | Mar 20, 2024

He did it again. Once more, California Redwoods Head Coach and General Manager Nat St. Laurent shook up the PLL by trading the fifth overall pick in the 2024 PLL College Draft to the New York Atlas for attackman Chris Gray

Whether it was trading for Rob Pannell in 2021 or Romar Dennis for Myles Jones last year (or trading for Myles Jones before that), the Redwoods have been involved in some of the biggest trades in Premier Lacrosse League history. 

This most recent move included acquiring the 18th overall pick in this year’s draft while adding Gray to an attack line that already had two 30-point scorers in Pannell and Ryder Garnsey

But that wasn’t the original plan. 

St. Laurent originally wanted to move up in what’s being touted as the greatest offensive draft ever, but when that fell through, he and his staff recalibrated and made a move for a top-five scorer in the league. 

The Redwoods' offseason has been one of change, with players like Garrett Epple and Jules Henningburg departing for new teams. I caught up with St. Laurent to discuss the Redwoods' offseason, the latest trade, and what makes him a unique dealmaker in a league that he says is “hard” to make trades in. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So, once again, you’ve shaken up the league. 

Yeah, we spent a long time as a staff reflecting on the past five years. We've been in one championship game, two semifinals, and never not in the playoffs. We think it's been a good run, but we wanted to address some things, get a little younger, get a little bit more energy, and get some pieces that we desperately needed.

So, the offseason was a tough one from a coaching standpoint, just because you build relationships with players, some of them for up to five years, and they make choices. We make choices to part ways. Free agency is exhausting. It's taxing. It's a great opportunity for the players and once you get past that, you got to put the GM hat on and make sure that you're doing everything you can in the best interest of the Redwoods.

And we feel like we certainly did that.

The Redwoods have now been involved in some of the biggest trades in the league’s history, so what about the way you look at roster construction makes you more likely to make a trade than some of the other coaches or GMs in the league?

First and foremost, I think trading in pro lacrosse is really hard, especially in our league, where there’s only eight teams. But I've always tried to make trades that make sense for both groups.

I'm probably overly loyal at times to players, and, I'm okay with that. But I always try to make moves that make sense, and if you go all the way back to 2019, where we really started to make waves with a couple of trades that year. I think in the moment those were great for our ball club and helped us win immediately and go on a run to the championship game. 

So, I'm always willing to make a trade, listen, and be open to options. And, quite frankly, that's really how the Chris Gray trade came about.

Just conversations with coaches being open-minded, looking at players that we felt were young and we're gonna help us build what we're talking about in terms of the offseason strategic plan So far, if trades didn't work out for the long haul, they worked out for a couple of years. And I think in pro sports, that's what we're trying to do. Develop a plan to kind of build for the future. But also you have to win in that moment — you owe it to those players.

What was that conversation with Mike Pressler like? How did it come about?

Coach Pressler is a great guy. He's very smart and calculated, and he asks a lot of questions. So we were just having a conversation about free agency in general. 

That kind of developed into not obviously playing each other's cards. We're all trying to win, and we're all keeping our cards pretty close, but getting an idea if there were any specific needs that they wanted or any specific needs that we wanted. 

We really wanted to move up in the draft this year from our fifth pick. I talked to a couple of teams that were ahead of us and we couldn't come up with an agreement.

From there, we had to circle back, and how do you not love Chris Gray? He can stretch the field, was the Atlas's leading scorer last year, and is young. So, when it became real, it was a no-brainer. 

This draft class has obviously been highly touted, specifically offensively, but based on what you're saying, you would’ve taken Chris Gray if he was in this draft class where you were slotted to draft.

Yeah, talking with my staff, we basically said if Chris Gray were available at fifth in this year's draft, we would take him in a heartbeat. So, we couldn't move up in the draft, and when he became a real possibility, I actually thought that was even better because he's a proven commodity in pro lacrosse.

He knows what to expect. He's a winner, and we know what to expect from him. He's already got a couple of years of experience, a couple of years of being an all-star. So, now we're getting a guy who's already proven himself in the league instead of a guy who's got to adjust to the league. In our opinion, it really worked out better than actually trading up.

Not to mention, you also got a pick, too.

The part of this trade that excited me the most is that we still have four picks in this draft.

So yes, we lost our fifth overall pick, but we were able to gain another pick in this draft. And if you know any history of the Redwoods in the third round, we've done very well over the years there*. With how deep this draft is, and being able to get Chris Gray and throw in another pick in a very deep draft, that was really fortunate

The Redwoods’ recent third-round picks: Charlie Bertrand (2021), Nakeie Montgomery (2022), and Cole Kirst (2023).

When does that moment of satisfaction hit after completing or nearing the completion of the deal?

I didn't share anything, but I just happened to be talking with a couple of guys, and I said, “Hey, what do you think about this person?” They just kind of chuckled and laughed and said, “Coach, he's really good.” I was like, “Yeah, that's kind of what I was thinking.” 

When I talked to my coaching staff, they were excited about Chris because there are so many things you can do with him. Obviously, he's a proven attackman, but you can run him out of the box and stretch the field, invert him, and wing dodge. We've watched a lot of Atlas film in the last week.

We just made a list of all the things that you can do with a player like Chris Gray, and then when I talked to him on the phone, I was really over the moon. My first conversation with Chris Gray after the trade was made, I hung up the phone and I was smitten.

You already have an elite attack group, how do you see Chris Gray fitting in? 

Very nicely. Ryder, Bertrand, Kirst, and some of these young guys are phenomenal players. Now, we can bring in a guy who can do it all, like Wes Berg

We can have Chris play attack and occasionally run him through the midfield to get a short-stick matchup. One of the things that we walked away from last year was that a couple of teams wanted to try to short-stick one of our attackmen. At the end of the year, they really couldn't do that. 

Wes's seven hat tricks changed that. I think Ryder's evolution as a pro player, being an MVP candidate, changed it. Now we’ve made it so you can't short-stick any of our attackmen.

If we do decide to run Wes Berg or Chris through the box occasionally, they'll be going against a short stick, which will cause you to draw a slide. In this league, it'll hurt you if you can't draw slides.

We were very inconsistent on offense last year at times, so bringing in Chris just gives us the opportunity now to move some personnel around and put our team in a situation where they have to slide to us. Now, they have to respect us.

The trade on so many different levels looks like Chris was really that missing link. 

You mentioned inverting Chris. Obviously, you have Rob Pannell. Was part of the calculus for trading Gray considering when Pannell might retire?

100%. Rob is probably at the back nine of his career. It's a storied career, and he's a Hall of Famer. I mean, Rob still had 34 points last year. Two years ago, he was the MVP candidate. We were very humbled when, you know, Rob said he wasn't going to play anywhere else. But that was something that  I had in the back of my mind—we know that day's coming. 

In preparation for that, you bring a guy like Chris in, who gets to know everybody, plays with Rob, and understands what we're all about. Then, Rob makes his decision. It'll be the right decision when he makes it. And Chris, Ryder, Ryan Lee, and Wes Berg, that attack unit's still going to be extremely strong.